Does brain-training ruling affect neuromarketing?

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Lumos Labs, who make the game Lumosity, were recently fined $2m because they
did not have sufficient scientific evidence to back up their claim that playing the game provided brain health benefits such performing better at work and protecting against cognitive decline.

“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads,” Jessica Rich, director of the US Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of consumer protection, said in a statement.

The FTC was specifically targeting companies developing medical apps with dubious claims of health benefits, but could this ruling have broader implications? If governments start reviewing the scientific evidence behind marketing claims, how well will neuromarketing stand up?

There are certainly high profile examples of where neuroscientists themselves have challenged the validity of neuromarketing. For instance, Martin Lindstrom’s claim that you love your iPhone was roundly criticized because the science was simply incorrect. Lindstrom found that people exposed to sounds or pictures of iPhones showed activation of their insula cortex, a part of the brain Lindstrom claimed was activated by being in love. Prof. Russ Poldrack, a Stanford neuroscientist, took exception to this in a post entitled “NYT OpEd + fMRI = complete crap”. Prof. Poldrack pointed out that the insula is active in roughly a third of all brain imaging experiments but remarkably it was not active in some of the most famous studies of love. More generally, he notes that trying to infer mental states from brain activation is a difficult problem (known as reverse inference) and that informal examples such as this are deeply flawed.

A similar example comes from an advertisement that claimed to investigate whether “the visceral experience of flying a fighter jet could ever be matched by a Porsche?”. In the video, a volunteer is wired to an electroencephalography (EEG) system to measure his brain activity. According to the “scientist” in the video, their results showed the nucleus accumbens releasing massive amounts of dopamine both when making corkscrew turns in the jet and left turns in the Porsche, indicating that the volunteer’s experience was similar in both cases. EEG, however, doesn’t measure dopamine release – it measures electrical activity – so this claim is patently false. In fact, there were many dodgy aspects to the “science” in this ad which were ably dissected by the blogger NeuroBollocks.

My point here is not to criticize egregious examples of consumer neuroscience but rather to raise the more general question: how would any neuromarketing campaign
fare when its scientific evidence is subject to external scrutiny? As part of the court settlement, Lumos Labs were ordered to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to support its marketing claims. I suspect consumers would agree that this is a reasonable standard, but if your company commissioned a neuromarketing project, how can you be sure you’re steering clear of false advertising?

Part of the problem is the difficulty of finding unbiased information on how advances in neuroscience are being applied to the study of consumer decision making. Workshops and conferences run by neuromarketing agencies primarily serve to advertise their services rather than separate the facts from the hype in order to examine the unique capabilities and important limitations of the latest consumer neuroscience methods. Without this information, companies run a real risk that the “neuroscience” behind their marketing may lack evidence and thus could run afoul the same problems facing Lumos Labs.

by Dr Joe Devlin

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